The Big Easy Holds Dear Memories For Kerasotis

By  //  May 8, 2012

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MY TAKE

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – I don’t know how much time I’ve spent in this city, where the spider veins of the Mississippi River entangle you in its charms. A half year of my life? Longer? Yes, probably longer.

2010 SUGAR BOWL: No. 5 Florida Gators vs. No. 3 Cincinnati Bearcats.

Super Bowls, Sugar Bowls, the years I covered the Los Angeles Rams when they shared the same division as the New Orleans Saints, a World’s Fair, visiting a hometown friend who once called this city his home, another pair of friends who are locals. And so, so much more. And now this. Annual pilgrimages to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a good time that’s so good it’s as addictive as a drug.

I’ve seen college football national championships won and lost here, and Super Bowl victors crowned. I stood in the French Quarter when a ticking second turned the odometer over on one millennium and started another.

Safe to say, I’ve spent more time in New Orleans than I have anywhere else that didn’t have my mailing address attached to it.

It is why so many memories of this city decorate my mind.

I’ve seen college football national championships won and lost here, and Super Bowl victors crowned. I stood in the French Quarter when a ticking second turned the odometer over on one millennium and started another.

I covered the after-effects of a hurricane here. No, not that hurricane. This one was Hurricane Elena, back in 1985, when I was here for Florida State’s football opener versus Tulane. Elena headed for New Orleans before veering toward Florida’s Panhandle and then pinballing with category 3 fury into Biloxi, Miss. It did some significant damage. You can look it up.

The best wedding gift my wife and I received was vacationing in the French Quarter, where a friend gave us his huge loft to stay in – the exquisite top floor above his seven-figure European antique store on Royal Street, formerly a home that once housed the pirate Jean Lafitte.

Yeah, so many memories.

I remember sitting with Wilber Marshall several days before Super Bowl XX at the Superdome. I was writing for the Los Angeles Daily News and he was playing linebacker for the Chicago Bears. I had covered Wilber since he was at Astronaut High School, when I was barely out of Merritt Island High School myself, and I remember thinking how special it was that two homeboys from Brevard County were at the biggest sports stage in the world – me the bittiest of bit players and Marshall a burgeoning superstar.

My first visit to New Orleans, in December of 1980, I got to hang with another homeboy – my friend and mentor Shelby Strother. Shelby was covering the Sugar Bowl, the one that rang in the new year on Jan. 1, 1981, and saw Herschel Walker lead the Georgia Bulldogs to its second and thus far last national championship. I was at that game, as well as at the Florida-Georgia Lindsay Scott game earlier that season in Jacksonville, and I still say Herschel Walker is the greatest running back I’ve ever seen. And no, there’s no bias there, not because Herschel married a girl from Cocoa Beach.

Danny Wuerffel won the 1996 Heisman Trophy. (wuerffeltrophy.org)

But who am I to judge talent? I remember standing on the sidelines at the Superdome one December afternoon in 1996 – later in the day after playing racquetball with Danny Wuerffel’s dad – and watching Danny and the Florida Gators practice for their Sugar Bowl date with Florida State, a game the Gators would win 52-20 en route to their first national championship. Standing next to me, intensely watching that same practice, was a gangly, pimply faced high school senior, a local kid touted as the nation’s best prep quarterback prospect.

Him? I thought. Him? He didn’t look like much. I reckoned that maybe he was living off his old man’s name. Then again, maybe not. Maybe, just maybe, I recall thinking, this Peyton Manning kid will amount to something as a quarterback.

My most recent visit to New Orleans, for this year’s Jazz Fest, I got to see my friend Kim Strother, Shelby’s widow, who’s been to 39 in a row … and counting. She and Shelby would always go together, until Shelby died in March of 1991, when the raging hatred that is cancer overtook him, and took him quick. Fulfilling Shelby’s desire, Kim took a third of his ashes and dispersed them off the tip of the Cocoa Beach Pier, another third found the waters off Key West and the final third he wished to be spread in New Orleans.

But where?

Peter K with his wife Shelley this week at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. (Images For SpaceCoastDaily.com)

Kim went to Jazz Fest that spring, but before doing so she went to the Mississippi River, looking for a spot, the right spot. Walking, crying, confused, she heard music. Gospel music. It grew louder as she drew closer. In a clearing, she saw a black church choir singing spirited hymns at a peaceful spot along the mighty river’s bank. She knew she’d found her spot, the right spot.

Still, it would be hard to go to Jazz Fest this first time without her husband. Then Kim picked up the New Orleans Times-Picayune and pulled out its Lagniappe section, which covers the city’s arts and entertainment. On the cover was a photo of a crowd shot from a previous Jazz Fest, promoting the upcoming festival. In the photo was Shelby, wearing one of his trademark Hawaiian-print shirts. Kim knew, just knew, that it would be okay to go now, even if she went with tears in her eyes.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to become an annual Jazz Fester. I’ve heard about it for decades, and heard nothing but good things – first from Shelby and Kim Strother, and more recently from my friends David and Linda Kennedy, the locals my wife and I stay with every year.

To still call it Jazz Fest, though, is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, it started as a jazz festival, but it’s changed through the decades, though its name hasn’t. Organizers spread 12 performing stages throughout New Orleans’ Fair Grounds Race Course, a horse race track that opened in 1852 and is owned by Churchill Downs, Inc. The various stages, strategically positioned, feature music of all genres and tastes. Jazz, blues, rock, Cajun, bluegrass, indie, folk, country, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, Latin … you name it. It’s here.

To still call it Jazz Fest, though, is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, it started as a jazz festival, but it’s changed through the decades, though its name hasn’t. Organizers spread 12 performing stages throughout New Orleans’ Fair Grounds Race Course, a horse race track that opened in 1852 and is owned by Churchill Downs, Inc. The various stages, strategically positioned, feature music of all genres and tastes. Jazz, blues, rock, Cajun, bluegrass, indie, folk, country, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, Latin … you name it. It’s here.

It’s a festival, with arts and crafts and booths and tents celebrating Louisiana’s heritage. And food. Oh, the food. As good as the music is, so is its food. And as diverse, too. Where else can you get alligator pie, pecan catfish with meuniere, crawfish beignets, turkey giardiniera po-boys, Cajun duck po-boys, fried crab cake with smoked tomato and jalapeno tartar … and on and on?

It’s a place for families, too, with one of those 12 stages, situated under a tent, devoted to children all day long.

From babies to boomers and beyond, Jazz Fest is where fun goes to have a good time.

It’s also where hips go to shake, toes go to tap and heads go to bang.

If you don’t get live music … well, you just don’t get it.

This past three-day weekend at Jazz Fest, the precursor for the four-day weekend coming up, I saw the Beach Boys, reunited with the enigmatic genius that is Brian Wilson, close out Friday night; Tom Petty closed Saturday night (telling hometown Gainesville stories as he did); and my favorite, Bruce Springsteen, closed Sunday night.

Music oozes from this place, like sweat through pores, and it’s unlike any place in the world. Jazz, blues, zydeco, Cajun … the epicenter is here, and the rippling effects are felt throughout the world. And make no mistake, folks from all over the world travel here for Jazz Fest, as if drawn by a grooving gravitational pull. People might think they come to New Orleans to discover music, but it’s the music that discovers them.

So much music, too.

While we 50-somethings were rocking to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, my buddy’s 20-year-old niece was at the opposite end of the fairgrounds dancing to Feist. She said it was awesome. I don’t doubt it.

This Saturday, performing concurrently on various stages, will be the Eagles, Ne-Yo, My Morning Jacket, Warren Haynes and Herbie Hancock. Not a short straw in the group.

It’s not just major acts either. Not hardly. This Jazz Fest, I discovered new artists, like Erika Flowers, and saw and appreciated old legends, like Henry Gray and the Cats. Ol’ Henry is truly old, 87, but he’s still brilliant on the keyboard; still singing the blues.

I recently sat with Alex Martins, the Orlando Magic CEO, for an upcoming magazine feature I’m working on. Martins used to live in New Orleans, and he wondered aloud why Orlando can’t be a major destination for sports venues like New Orleans is. The only piece he sees that’s missing is a significantly upgraded Citrus Bowl.

Perhaps.

But if you’ve been to New Orleans and Orlando as many times as I’ve been to both, you know it’s like comparing a rhinestone to a diamond. Orlando, as much as it tries not to be, comes across contrived. Its theme park tourist attractions feel plastic, manufactured to manipulate emotions. But in New Orleans, it’s different. In New Orleans, even the touristy spots feel authentic. Why? Because they are. There’s no guilt (only pleasure) when you go to Café Du Monde for its coffee and chicory and those beignets that are, as Jimmy Buffett once sang, “too hot to touch.”

Sure, you know it’s touristy. You also know that you’re sitting in a café that first opened in 1862.

Yeah, there’s a difference.

And then there’s the music, which pulls me back now more so than sports. It is music that helped heal this city post-Katrina. In New Orleans’ bleakest moments, music was the flower that emerged from the crack in the dirty sidewalk. Resilient. Vibrant.

Six years later, at Jazz Fest, the music blooms into a flowerbed of colorful sounds.

It is legend now that post-Katrina, with the fairgrounds a lake, submerged under several feet of water, Jimmy Buffett phoned Jazz Fest organizer Quint Davis and told them they were going to have the festival that following spring. And so they did. How? It’s still a miracle; a miracle that lifted this city from the mire of Katrina, both literally and metaphorically.

Bruce Springsteen showed for that Jazz Fest, performing with his Seeger Sessions Band, performing a show that left people weeping.

“I’m not alone in ranking that show as quite likely the best, and certainly the most emotional, musical experience of my life,” wrote the talented Times-Picayune music writer Keith Spera.

Springsteen referenced that show the other night, saying the emotional experience of it stayed with him and the band “a long, long time.”

I missed that show, something I’ll always regret.

I didn’t miss the one this past Sunday.

I don’t miss too many opportunities anymore to come to this great city, a city and its people that I’ve come to love.


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10 Comments on "The Big Easy Holds Dear Memories For Kerasotis"

  1. Charlie Greene May 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm · Reply

    Hey Peter,
    When I worked for Eastern Airlines, New Orleans was high on my list to visit. From my 40th or so floor of the Marriott I could watch the finishing touches being put on the Superdome. You’re right it is a magical city.

    So sad about Junior Seau. Are you back from Mexico or haven’t left yet?

    Charlie

    P.S. Jorge has made so much progress that his daughter is taking him and her Mom on a 7 day cruise.

  2. Greg Nagle May 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm · Reply

    A lovely tribute, Peter. Most enjoyable.

    Greg

  3. Dan Campana May 3, 2012 at 8:58 pm · Reply

    You are still one of the best writers in the Good Old USA! Keep it up Peter.

  4. THURMAN STROTHER May 4, 2012 at 9:14 am · Reply

    Thanks Pete, your words cook up a lip-lickin savory taste of New Orleans and it’s annual bugaloo. You paint the truth that speaks not just of the spice and flavor, but of the soul and rhythm of the city. That ain’t a bad definition of jazz. I really like the song, It would be easy to dance to. Peace & Love, Thanks for the memories.

  5. Camille Albert May 4, 2012 at 9:24 am · Reply

    Once again, a vibrant and touching write. So glad you are back. Love NOLA. Don’t get there much any more but some wonderful memories there.
    Camille

  6. Charley Hester May 4, 2012 at 11:38 pm · Reply

    I grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and spent several years in Biloxi and Pascagoula so yes, I too spent a lot of time in New Orleans, some of it behaving rather badly. I haven’t been able to convince myself to go back since Katrina, but I will. New Orleans will always occupy a special place in my memories, and as you well know, there is no other place like it.

    It makes me sad to remember Shelby Strother. I didn’t know him personally, but his passing came as a shock to me, and I still have my copy of “Saddlebags”. I have always thought that he was in a class by himself as both a sports writer and philosopher but now I have to say that he has to move over and share the podium with you. You are right there with him.

  7. jace dobrowolski May 7, 2012 at 1:13 pm · Reply

    Thanks for the nice reflections on our good friend Kim, she is a gem and we are lucky to know her from both our Louisiana and Florida roots. There is always a smile on her lips and music from her soul. A very special friend.

  8. Gator Wilson May 8, 2012 at 10:43 am · Reply

    Have the gators tackled Hershel yet?

  9. Giles Malone
    Giles Malone May 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm · Reply

    Hello Peter,

    Enjoy some King cakes for us please.

  10. Susan Whitall May 12, 2012 at 10:22 am · Reply

    From one of Shelby’s Detroit News buddies, thanks for this great story, Peter.

    He and Kim also introduced me to Jazzfest, and you captured the essence of why so many of us long for it on the years we don’t make it down there.

    I was there on the banks of the Mississippi when we gave Shelby his send-off, with a musical backdrop of hymns sang by the gospel singers we happened upon.

    Thanks again…

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